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Speechless is a show about a loving, suburban family of five (including a son with cerebral palsy) but don’t expect the ABC comedy to be rife with trite plotlines about what it’s like to live with a disability. The series is written and executive produced by Scott Silveri (Friends), whose brother has cerebral palsy, but as the showrunner tells The Hollywood Reporter, Speechless is “not the wheelchair show.”
The comedy begins with the DiMeo family moving to a rundown house in a good school district so wheelchair-bound JJ (Micah Fowler) can attend a school that will better suit his needs. Mom Maya (Minnie Driver) is a tireless advocate for her nonverbal son, and at times places his needs above those of her husband Jimmy (John Ross Bowie, The Big Bang Theory) and two other children Ray (Mason Cook, Legends) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy, The Walking Dead).
“There’s a pride to who this family is and there’s not a shred of apology. They’ve got a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and it’s fun,” Silveri says. “I don’t think that’s something unique to living with somebody with a disability. A lot of families feel different, and that’s what we’re trying to tap into here — dealing with being different without apologizing for who you are.”
Silveri clarifies he didn’t set out to make Speechless to raise awareness about people with disabilities, but once work began on the show he knew he had to create something that accurately represents what life is like for disabled people and their families. To ensure the show’s authenticity, he works with a team of consultants from the disabled community, who advise him on overused tropes that are best avoided. About half of the writing staff also has experience with disability, and Silveri even looks to Fowler — who has cerebral palsy but is verbal, unlike his character — for input.
“This isn’t a kid who’s overcoming anything, he’s just a kid,” Silveri adds of JJ. “If we have a point at all it’s that — he’s just a kid.”
Below, Silveri also discusses how Speechless fits in with ABC’s increasingly diverse Wednesday comedy block, why humor is a crucial part of the show and more.
Did you feel a sense of responsibility to bring this story to TV and raise awareness about people with disabilities because of your personal connection to the community?
The short answer is no. I didn’t feel a responsibility to bring this story to TV, but once I decided to bring it to TV, I felt a deep responsibility to get it right. It’s really not a show that has its genesis in wanting to educate or open a discourse. These are all things that came later and are wonderful consequences, but this is very simply the case of writing what you know and trying to mine something that feels real and had some specificity to it from my own life.
The real responsibility is, if we’re going to do it, we better get it right. We better be informed about the lives of people like this, we better be respectful, and the best thing we do is make it funny. That’s what my life was growing up, and that’s what goes on in the lives of people I’ve talked to and read about. There are challenges that are unique to this situation and not easy, but it just becomes life and there’s a lot of lightness and fun in that life and in our lives growing up. We saw things that were tough, but I don’t think anybody laughed harder than we did.
But yes, because there are so few representations, for better or for worse, I think there will be the expectation that this show speaks for disability at large, which is really not my intention. At the same time, it’s really important to reflect the experience in an honest and respectful way, all the while chasing after all the jokes we can gobble up. (Laughs.)
Are the plotlines easier for you to write because of your own experience?
It’s different. I worked on Friends for eight years and you do a lot of dating stories, but I didn’t know how to date! I met my wife when I was 18. (Laughs.) I managed to fake it for a while. There is a lot of good, and a lot of hard stuff to writing a story like this. The hard part was, it’s where comedy writing meets therapy, and it’s interesting with the family dynamic. But it’s hard to sort out what’s just me vomiting stuff on a page and what’s a story that’s going to be interesting to somebody outside my family. Taking a couple steps away from it being my actual family made it a lot easier to write.
Still, my own experience made it easier because it wasn’t hard to think about where stories would come from on this show. It wasn’t hard to think of points of view. The other thing that made it easy is how little disability has been represented on television. Nobody has been into any of this stuff before. I feel like we’re the first ones to a lot of subject matter, a lot of story, a lot of scenes. It’s been fun for us to write that way and I hope people have fun watching it.
Why is humor so important on a show like this?
When I told people the subject matter, the response I’d get from some would be, “Oh I thought you were a comedy writer?” But the response I got from people who actually had disability in their family or near to them was, “Oh please make it funny. Please tell me it’s a comedy.” That’s what we’re trying to do here. It’s easy to mine drama from a situation, but let’s show the other side people don’t think about so much.
What makes the timing right for a show like Speechless?
Both specificity and diversity are big parts of the TV-making process right now. Cable, Netflix and Amazon, they’ve explored worlds you’d never see explored on network TV. I think because so much more is available, networks have an appetite to look for something a little bit different. Diversity means a lot of different things. It means racial diversity and it should absolutely include disability as well. I think it’s the natural evolution of the exploration of diversity on network TV. More than anything, I hope it’s just a story and a family people key into and fall in love with. There’s a timely component of it, but people love good characters and good stories, and that’s what we’re trying to beam out there.
How does ABC’s recent comedy success with shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat set the stage for Speechless?
ABC has a real sense of who they are and what they’re doing, and I really enjoy those shows. This show fits within those. It is going for the same feel as a Black-ish or a Fresh Off the Boat in that they’re not telling stories that are so narrow and focused only somebody in the Asian-American or African-American community can follow it. These are universal stories — coming of age, love, work, drama — with a little bit of specificity that gives them a lens through which most shows are seen, and a little spin most shows which have come before don’t have. That’s what we’re looking to do, too. This is not going to be the wheelchair show, this is not going to be the ramp-of-the-week show. We’re going to be telling all sorts of stories, but in any given story you can bank into what makes the show unique.
How important was it to have someone who actually has cerebral palsy play JJ?
It was a no-brainer for me actually, just because from a purely practical standpoint I wanted to do a show with some authenticity, and why fake it in such a terrific way at its core? There are so many ways to screw these shows up, I figured let’s not take the first one. Also, you wouldn’t want to have to constantly be coaching an actor through it, that’s the practical side. The other side is, it just felt right. I always thought that’s what we were going to do and I was waiting for somebody to come along and say, “Won’t it be a lot easier if we just went with somebody who doesn’t have a disability?” I was so excited for the fight and I was so disappointed it didn’t happen. (Laughs.) I get to have so few arguments in which I’m right!
There are people who feel very strongly that a character with a disability can never be represented by an actor who doesn’t have a disability. That is not a deeply held belief for me, but what we did just felt right. Luckily we found somebody in Micah who made that a very easy decision to make. He’s just got such wit, charm, charisma, energy and all those great things. He’s a damn funny kid.
Since Fowler has cerebral palsy do you let some of his own experiences inform the character? Is he able to point out if something feels inauthentic?
Absolutely. Not only does he come to us and point it out — it doesn’t happen that much, we’re not that bad (laughs) — but we go to him preemptively and ask about certain storylines. Micah and his parents both have been very generous in sharing their own experiences because they care to get it right, too. We all want to get it right, we all feel the responsibility to be true to the experience. We’ve spoken not only with Micah, but we have a couple of other people to whom we always refer. Micah’s a fantastic resource for making the show better and more real, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s really funny.
How inclusive is your writers’ room? What experience does the room have with stories like JJ’s?
We sought out a number of writers who have children or siblings with disabilities. I was looking for and met with some people with disabilities themselves as well, but we’re so limited with our staff on a first-year show it didn’t end up going that way. But that’s something I’m hoping to do in the future. About half of the staff has some link to that experience and that’s certainly helped us generate stories in that we know we’re starting from a place of authenticity and reality. But the thing that speaks more to how I hope the show will be received is how the writers without a direct link to disability took to the subject matter.
Our job here is to entertain and make people laugh. I’m not writing this show to change hearts and minds, but if at the same time we can dip a little toe in changing how people perceive someone they see who happens to look a little different and realize it’s not so damn foreign, that’d be fantastic and my mom would be very proud.
Shows like Breaking Bad and Glee have brought us special needs characters, but what sets Speechless apart?
I think Breaking Bad did a particularly good job, because [the disability] really wasn’t the issue. That’s a fantastic way to set something as normal and not to be dealing with it in text all that much.
I like coming at it from a purely comedic angle. I like trying to find what’s funny in the experience week in and week out, but I’m not looking at how it’s different or how it’s perceived, because it really isn’t driven by the desire to make a statement. I’m trying to capture the feeling of a family that’s felt very familiar to me, like this family. I was more going for the feeling of this family than any exploration of disability.
Is there anything you’re not willing to tackle with regard to JJ’s disability?
I wouldn’t say there’s anything we’re not willing to tackle, but we made a decision early on to write him as much of a teenage boy as you would any other character. I knew I wanted to do a show with a character with a disability, I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t defined by it. My criterion was, if this kid’s got enough going on that he holds water without the disability, then it’s something to talk about. If not, forget it, because I have no interest in putting a kid on the screen who’s simply a prop or an engine for other people’s stories. He needs to have a point of view.
We also made a decision early on to really go at stories that are not about overcoming disability. There are a lot of tropes in the representation of the disabled on TV and in movies — we wanted to avoid them. People have what they have and they’re going to have what they have. We don’t want the story to be about JJ overcoming something.
Speechless achieves a balance between humor and some tough issues people aren’t used to seeing be depicted on TV. How important is that balance when you’re crafting each episode?
I didn’t think it was important to do that, but it’s fun to toggle back and forth between tones on a show and deal with something serious and then something absurd comes from it. It’s a little bit of a writing challenge and it’s really fun not to limit the kinds of stories we’re telling and where they can go. We’re going for something that’s unapologetically silly and unapologetically sincere.
What do you hope viewers take away from the show?
When you spend a little time with this family you realize they’re not different from anybody else in any real and meaningful way, except they’re funnier.
Speechless premieres Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. Watch the trailer, below.
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